LOTS 9 - 10

Between 1962 and 1990, within the self-imposed constraints of his small portrait format, Francis Bacon produced a stream of self-portraits of compelling potency. He never diverged in them from painting the human head at just under life-size, on a plain background. This simple, direct, formal matrix differentiates the small portraits from his large paintings, with their space-defining geometries or other complex visual data. Yet asSelf-Portrait, 1975, and Three Studies for Self-Portrait, 1980, convincingly demonstrate, his portrait idiom was constantly evolving. Moreover, bothSelf-Portrait, 1975, and Three Studies for Self-Portrait, 1980, are painted with consummate skill. The range of heterodox techniques by then at Bacon’s disposal is inextricable from their impact and meaning: he had fulfilled his aim, stated in 1953, to ‘make idea and technique inseparable’.

A self-portrait is self-evidently a distinct art-historical category, in that it is both of and by the artist. If, among his conceptual stimuli, Bacon can be said to have had a pre-eminent inspiration to paint self-portraits, it was Rembrandt’s obsessive documentation of his appearance, over forty years and in almost one hundred paintings and etchings. Bacon frequently raised this phenomenon in interviews, and cited a specific source book for his pictorial borrowings, William Pinder’s Rembrandts Selbstbildnisse, 1945: significantly, for his own practice, he understood Rembrandt’s self-portraits to have coalesced from ‘anti-illustrational’, ‘anti-rational’ paint marks.

L15022_bacon_1Black and white photograph of Francis
Bacon from Peter Beard: Fifty Years of
Portraits
, taken at 80 Narrow Street,
London, in March 1972. Photo: Peter Beard.
Image: © The Estate of Francis Bacon

Fifty-one named self-portraits by Bacon survive, painted between 1956 and 1990. Thirty-five of these are single canvasses, thirteen large and twenty-two small. There are three small diptychs and ten small triptychs. He painted only one large self-portrait triptych, and a further large triptych in which a single panel is a self-portrait; another small triptych similarly contains one self-portrait panel. The statistics seem straightforward enough, but Bacon’s art is seldom this uncomplicated.

The main criterion of a ‘self-portrait’ in the aggregate of fifty-one is that it should be a painting identified as such in the title. However, several more paintings are incontrovertibly self-portraits, although Bacon did not indicate this in the title. In addition, latterly Bacon also included his self-portrait as a painting-within-a-painting, usually in the form of a (painted) black and white photograph pinned to a wall: by this definition his final self-portrait was his image in the right panel of Triptych, 1991; (the unfinished canvas found on Bacon’s easel after his death may also be a self-portrait).

Bacon painted his first portrait of a named sitter, Portrait of Lucian Freud, in 1951, and his first self-portrait in 1956. Freud was standing, while in the named full-length self-portraits Bacon is invariably seated. Bacon’s preference for non-descriptive or open-ended titles – ‘Painting’; ‘Study’, for example – is well known. But given that he identified more than fifty paintings as self-portraits, why did he not embrace Head of a Man, 1960, for example, as a self-portrait? He told Robert Sainsbury – who bought the painting – it was a self-portrait, and it bears a striking resemblance to Bacon, who wears a dark suit, tie and white shirt, similar to his attire in the two acknowledged self-portraits that preceded it. The likeness of other sitters is sometimes less clear-cut. We encounter here Bacon’s problematic tendency to blur his identity in some of his self-portrayals, the slippage between his self-image and the physical appearance of those he loved or admired. It is a question that may be germane to Three Studies for Self-Portrait, 1980.

L15022_bacon_2FRANCIS BACON Self-Portrait, 1956 Modern
Art Museum of Fort Worth, Fort Worth © The
Estate of Francis Bacon. All rights reserved
, DACS 2015. Photo: Prudence Cuming
Associates Ltd.
L15022_bacon_3FRANCIS BACON Head of a Man, 1960 Sainsbury Centre for
Visual Arts © The Estate of Francis Bacon. All rights
reserved, DACS 2015. Photo: Prudence Cuming Associates Ltd.

In assessments of Bacon’s entire oeuvre, the years between 1957 and 1962 are frequently described as ‘transitional’, or a period in which Bacon lost his way; while this over-simplistic periodization marginalizes too many important paintings, nevertheless 1962 can justifiably be considered a pivotal year. One of Bacon’s ‘new directions’ in 1962 was partly a consequence of the tragic irony that Bacon learned of Peter Lacy’s death on the eve of the opening of his first Tate Gallery retrospective. While the exhibition was still running at the Tate Gallery, Bacon painted Study for Three Heads, 1962. Irrespective of the traumatic decline of their affair, Lacy had been ‘the love of Bacon’s life’. The triptych Study for Three Heads was the first of his passionate, posthumous paeans to Lacy, in which the outer panels depict Lacy and flank the disconsolate Bacon in the centre.

This, too, was a ‘pivotal’ work, since each panel of the triptych was 14 by 12in. (35.5 by 30.5cm.). Thus it initiated the ‘small portrait’ format, in exactly these dimensions, that became established as one of Bacon’s two primary modes of expression for the remainder of his career. In 1963 Bacon painted his first small triptychs of Henrietta Moraes and George Dyer, after which the configuration became the vehicle for insightful if distorted records of his friends and a succession of searching self-portraits. At almost two metres high Bacon’s large paintings are generally beheld from a comfortable distance. Under glass, reflecting the viewer, they tend to be approached cautiously, ambivalently, as though their ‘paint as sensation’ is in a duel with the stark imagery. The small portraits, then, are a distinct category – they insist on a close encounter, a more intimate dialogue.


LEAF FROM THE BOOK REMBRANDT’S SELBSTBILDNISSE BY WILHELM PINDER DUBLIN CITY GALLERY THE HUGH LANE © THE ESTATE OF FRANCIS BACON. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED, DACS 2015. PHOTO: PRUDENCE CUMING ASSOCIATES LTD.

In several decisive respects both Self-Portrait, 1975, and Three Studies for Self-Portrait, 1980, are unique. Bacon began to apply areas of transfer lettering (Letraset) to his paintings in 1970, and during the next seventeen years, irrespective of the limits of its function as a banal or incidental passage in the paintings as a whole, he was continually inventive in deploying this semi-graphic device. Its use, however, was reserved for his large ‘subject’ paintings: in the full-length Self-Portrait, 1973, for example, it serves to identify the detritus on the floor as a discarded, crumpled newspaper.


FRANCIS BACON, SELF-PORTRAIT, 1973. PRIVATE COLLECTION.
IMAGE: © PRUDENCE CUMING ASSOCIATES LTD.
ARTWORK: © THE ESTATE OF FRANCIS BACON. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED, DACS 2015.

Self-Portrait, 1975, is the only small painting of any kind on which Bacon applied Letraset. As such it is the bearer of a complex web of potential meanings. At an obvious level it invokes (and reverses) Horace’s ‘ut pictura poesis’. The random letters may also be acting as a metaphor for Bacon’s implacable refusal to explain his paintings in words, his insistence that he was not trying to express anything and that he did not know what half of them meant himself. They are a denial of ekphrasis. The ‘words’ in Self-Portrait, 1975, tumble from his mouth, but communicate nothing. Bacon appears to be acknowledging the words of Plato’s character Phaedrus, who observed that if one asks anything of paintings, ‘they remain most solemnly silent.’

IN SEVERAL DECISIVE RESPECTS BOTH SELF-PORTRAIT, 1975, AND THREE STUDIES FOR SELF-PORTRAIT, 1980, ARE UNIQUE.

Three Studies for Self-Portrait, 1980, is one of four paintings made in the first half of 1980 which share a similar pale blue ground; three were small triptychs, the other a small self-portrait. The last of these, Study for Self-Portrait, 1980, was painted in Bacon’s Paris studio, in rue de Birague; Bacon, who had been annoyed by a critic who called him an expressionist, showed it to his friend Eddy Batache and declared: ‘Now this is in my impressionist style.’ Bacon’s remark was partly jocular, but his palette in all four of these paintings is reminiscent of Degas’s pastels, which he had long admired. Moreover, he had recently painted twin portraits of Batache and Reinhard Hassert, and Portrait of Reinhard Hassert, 1979, in particular, has affinities with Chardin’s pastel Self-Portrait with Spectacles (1771; Louvre Museum, Paris). The softened colour-schemes of both Degas and Chardin also appear to have been operative in Three Studies for Self-Portrait, 1980.

L15022_bacon_7ODILON REDON Les Yeux clos, 1890 Musée d’Orsay, Paris
L15022_bacon_8EDGAR DEGAS Seated Dancer, circa 1881-83 Musée
d’Orsay, ParisImage: © Bridgeman Images

In most of Bacon’s small portrait triptychs the panels are arranged (more or less symmetrically) ‘like police mug-shots’, as Bacon put it – facing right; head on; facing left. Three Studies for Self-Portrait, 1980, is exceptional, since in all three panels Bacon is facing left, his eyes downcast or half-closed. Bacon insisted that each panel of his large triptychs be framed separately, but the three panels of his small triptychs were always framed together, which ensured the correct sequence was maintained.

Nearly all of Bacon’s portraits of his friends were painted with the help of photographs, as well as from memory, but for the self-portraits, while still using photographs, he told David Sylvester that ‘I look at myself in the mirror…’ Three Studies for Self-Portrait, 1980, is a prime candidate for having been painted mainly in a mirror. First, the images are unlikely to be literally mimetic of photographs because the representations are idealized – Bacon was seventy when he painted the triptych. He used a mirror for his maquillage, a glamourisation that by then bespoke of nostalgia for lost youthfulness; he was confronting the ageing process, and was, after all, fond of quoting Cocteau’s remark about looking in the mirror and seeing death at work. The three sides of the inner black rectangles that frame the pale blue grounds are another feature unique to this triptych, and suggest that the mirror Bacon gazed at was rectangular. In addition, Bacon’s face appears to be illuminated by a source above the head – a bathroom lamp perhaps? The ethereal light and atmosphere, as well as the closed eyes, invite comparison with Odilon Redon’s Les Yeux Clos (1890; Musée d’Orsay, Paris), a painting Bacon must have known.

Nearly all of Bacon’s portraits of his friends were painted with the help of photographs, as well as from memory, but for the self-portraits, while still using photographs, he told David Sylvester that ‘I look at myself in the mirror…’ Three Studies for Self-Portrait, 1980, is a prime candidate for having been painted mainly in a mirror. First, the images are unlikely to be literally mimetic of photographs because the representations are idealized – Bacon was seventy when he painted the triptych. He used a mirror for his maquillage, a glamourisation that by then bespoke of nostalgia for lost youthfulness; he was confronting the ageing process, and was, after all, fond of quoting Cocteau’s remark about looking in the mirror and seeing death at work. The three sides of the inner black rectangles that frame the pale blue grounds are another feature unique to this triptych, and suggest that the mirror Bacon gazed at was rectangular. In addition, Bacon’s face appears to be illuminated by a source above the head – a bathroom lamp perhaps? The ethereal light and atmosphere, as well as the closed eyes, invite comparison with Odilon Redon’s Les Yeux Clos (1890; Musée d’Orsay, Paris), a painting Bacon must have known.

In painting himself Bacon usually ‘practiced the injury’ that he said he did to other sitters, although in neither Self-Portrait, 1975, nor Three Studies for Self-Portrait, 1980, are the ‘injuries’ extreme. Gilles Deleuze characterised these distortions as the ‘forces of pressure, dilation, contraction, flattening, and elongation that are exerted on the immobile head.’ But Deleuze’s ‘invisible forces’ might be interpreted in another way. As well as deformations visited on the head, they can be perceived as Bacon’s technique for trapping the energy of an individual – their ‘emanation’ as he termed it – to ‘give over all the pulsations of a person’. Like the inspirational Rembrandt self-portraits, these were Bacon’s vanitas paintings, a serial reinterpretation of ‘Basil Hallward’s’ picture of Dorian Gray and a precious cumulative document.

 

當代藝術晚拍

01 July 2015 | London